What Happened To Selling?

Now that we have arrived at mid-Summer, I imagine many of my subscribers are on vacation/holiday, so I’m going to offer something short and sweet today. I received the short email below from a client, who wanted to share his frustration with me on the difficulty his company encountered recently when trying to break out of their “same old methods” of customer acquisition and test something new.

“Bill, I thought of you recently.  I don’t know where the era of sales and marketing has gone these days.  Our customer base closely matches AOL’s customer base and so we were thinking digitally might be a good place to advertise.  Right?  So we went to call them and work with someone but they only have an online form to submit requests for advertising with them (guess they are too busy doing something to take sales calls).  In any event we started  submitting to this form about 2 months ago.  Each time we get a website screen saying someone would contact us shortly.  Nope.  Hasn’t happened at all.  So…. I called the headquarters.  Figured I’d get to the advertising department and could speak to someone ready to sell me right.  Nope.  The operator said she couldn’t connect me with a department, only an individual.  She couldn’t event tell me who was in the department.  Arggg.  So…. Using LinkedIn I went in and found a sales director, got her name and then told the HQ I wanted to speak to her.  I left her a message and still have not heard back.   I find it incomprehensible that AOL could be doing so well that it would want to put up barriers like this.”

OK – so it is not easy to try new things, although this client’s experience suggests that AOL is on a crash course to oblivion.

But just step back and make sure that what this client described can’t be applied to your own company.   Case in point: my wife recently bought a pair of pants from a new online company. She tried them on, they didn’t fit, and she tried to return them, like she can with LL Bean, Lands’ End, Duluth Trading, etc.  Nope, not here. Once you try them on – you own them.  What really annoyed my wife, after she had received this news from the company’s customer service department, was receiving a “customer feedback survey” which was inquiring about her satisfaction with her order. She responded to the survey, and blasted  the company over this non-return policy. She received no reply. What happened to basic catalog customer service?

Oh, the things companies do that just turn more of their customers into Amazon buyers.

Speaking of which, did you see that Amazon posted their 2nd Quarter sales and profits numbers last week? Sales were up 31%, from $23.2 billion (LY) to $30.4 billion. And profits were $857 million, up from only $92 million in 2015.

In about two weeks, the major retailers will begin releasing their 2nd quarter results.  How many will be citing “lost sales to Amazon” as a reason their sales are soft?

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



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A Catalog Apollo Program

My father was a very logical and practical person. He always thought it was foolish that every little town in New England had its own police and fire departments. When you think about it, why should each town incur the fixed and variable expense of maintaining these expensive departments?   We have a regional high school shared by multiple towns, why not a regional police department?

The rational against this idea from other residents in any town where it is proposed is always the same – our own local police and fire department have quicker response times, and can “get to know the town better and thus provide better customer service”. My small town has a volunteer fire department, and a police force with only two officers that both go off duty at 9 PM – if  you call for help at 2 AM, you’re going to have a long wait, no matter how well they know the town.

Purely by coincidence, as I was writing this posting, there was an article in our local newspaper about two local towns that successfully combined their two police departments in 2005.  In the intervening ten years, the two towns have saved a combined $1 million (which is a lot of money to a little New England town), and actually ended up with better service. The article also mentioned that this is the only known example of two towns in New England that have done this type of partnership.

I bring this up because I think it is time to again re-visit an old concept. I read the other day that the Boston Globe (New England’s largest daily newspaper) now prints the Boston Herald (New England’s second largest daily newspaper) – and the Globe’s closest competitor. This is savings to the Herald, and income to the Globe. That got me thinking about catalogs cooperating with each other.

Years ago, we had a speaker at the VT/NH Direct Marketing Group that advocated a similar concept for catalogs, which was to simply band together and do joint purchasing of services and joint fulfillment. To a large degree, only the big catalog conglomerates (like Cornerstone) are taking advantage of this, by having one or two distribution centers for multiple brands.

I know, I know – this idea has been talked about numerous times over the years and has even been attempted a few times. I also know that the few times it has been attempted, the venture failed resulting in the participating companies losing their inventories in padlocked warehouses.  But let’s look at what has changed.

Almost all catalogs are facing greater competition from online giants. Small and mid-sized catalogs are struggling to grow and stay profitable. Cash is short and additional funding to do what is really important – develop new products – is scarce. Moreover, having distribution efficiency and depth of product inventory are the hallmarks of the online giants like Amazon and Wayfair. Those companies don’t have any innovative products – they just have a ton of ordinary products.

Catalogs need to acknowledge that they will never be able to compete with Amazon and similar online giants on same day shipping, or even next day, but they could be as competitive with 2nd day shipping, if they had enough volume and with enough efficiency.

Let’s look at some other options for how catalogs can become more efficient and save money. Cut more circulation and pages? Sure, but that eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns. And besides, if catalogs could concentrate on developing more truly unique, innovative product, then they might want to expand circulation.  Cut more staff? No, that just leads to more of a downward spiral.  Stop doing stupid stuff? Yes, that’s obvious, but the stupid things that catalogs do usually are not the things that put them out of business.

The main reason companies go out of business is they ran out of cash. Cash at times is more important than your mother. Savings add up every time you negotiate a new contract. But savings also add up if you can get rid of non-core expenses. For catalogs, that means the warehouse and product distribution/ shipping.

In a famous Wall Street Journal article from 1989 entitled Sell The Mailroom, management consultant Peter Drucker argued that companies could be more efficient if they farmed out support services like the “mailroom”. Part of his rational, and the one that has always resonated with me was that “In-house service and support activities are de facto monopolies. They have little incentive to improve their productivity. There is, after all, no competition. When in-house support staff are criticized for doing a poor job, their managers are likely to respond by hiring more people. An outside contractor knows that he will be tossed out and replaced by a better-performing competitor unless he improves quality and cuts costs.”

Most of you will tell me that your in-house distribution staff are super-efficient, and could not possibly be any more so. Further, you will tell me that you simply would never trust your fulfillment to a 3rd party because they could never do it as well as your staff. Oh, pride goeth before the fall.

Look, most of your fulfillment staffs are efficient, within the confines that you allow them to operate. From Datamann’s own experience, we know that most companies only use 20% to 50% of their order processing systems, and often the tools that are unused are the ones that could lead to highest efficiency. But even if you are maximizing your available systems, most of you have difficulty staffing up to meet seasonal demand, and you cannot afford to keep up with all the new hardware and software innovations, such as warehouse robots. Those are the types of cost savings that continue to give the online giants an advantage.

Could catalogs actually band together and make something like this work? In my opinion, no. The reason is that the catalog industry, just like most other industries, is too fragmented. The impetus is going to have to come from the outside, and will have to be market driven. However, there is a precedent.

Most of you have never heard of C&S Wholesale Grocers, but they are the 10th largest privately held company in the United States. C&S is the largest wholesale grocery supply company in the US, supplying independent supermarkets, chain stores and institutions with every product they sell, delivering everything from seafood to soup to soap from more than 50 high-tech distribution facilities. The reason most people have never heard of them is that they do absolutely no branding (their trucks are blank); they just provide incredible service and efficiency to the clients/stores they serve. The reason they are so big is that more and more large grocery chains realize that C&S can handle all the aspects of ordering, storage, and transportation of their products better and more efficiently than they can.

Granted, the number of products the modern US supermarket sells is finite – somewhere around 150,000. Many of you have that many SKUs in your current assortment. And with the exception of regional variances in things like the consumption of BBQ sauce, planning the weekly consumption of Kleenex, Ragu, and Diet Pepsi probably doesn’t change that much across 50 states. So, some of you are saying “Sure, they’ve got it easy, they don’t have to deal with getting dresses made in China, or furniture shipped from Vietnam.”

But those issues are part of merchandising, and those are the aspects of being “your brand” that you would retain. What I’m suggesting is that the time has come for catalogs to give up two non-core areas – warehousing and shipping – areas in which we will never be as efficient as our ecommerce competitors. Think of the advantage if you had one warehouse, next to a FedEx hub, that handled 200 catalogs, with all the picking and packing done by robots. More to the point, think of the advantages if you had two competing companies supplying that service next to that hub.

Unfortunately, if you have read this far, you are probably thinking “Yes, this could work. But, instead of using an outside company, why couldn’t our warehouse be that industry hub?  We could do fulfillment for the whole industry, plus our own!” I’m sure that over the years, many grocery stores thought they could do the same. But in the end, the reason that C&S Distributors reigns supreme is that they are in the distribution business, not the grocery business. You are a merchant, and you will only grow by selling stuff – unique stuff at that. You are not going to grow by being in the distribution business.

Pulling this off at the scale necessary to make it viable would require an equivalent of an Apollo program for the catalog industry, where a commitment would be made to not land a man on the moon in ten years, but to close every catalog warehouse, and create a co-operative infrastructure in which all the non-core operations of catalogs were handled by outside vendors, with incredible automation and efficiency.

Ok, so my father was not a volunteer fireman, and I’m no operations expert like Stan Fenvessey.   I’m sure that many of you will find many faults with my simplistic idea for saving the catalog industry some money.    But if you are looking for solutions to how we as an industry can stay afloat, and compete, maybe it’s time to revisit this idea.  If the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald can cooperate to survive, we should consider the concept as viable for catalog survival too.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



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Observations from Spring NEMOA 2015 – Part 2

Here is Part 2 of my observations from NEMOA, which with one exception that I will explain, are not criticisms of NEMOA. They are just observations about our industry that came into alignment during the conference last week.

What He Didn’t Say:

You either love the way Frank Oliver delivers a speech, or you hate it. From the audience’s reaction, I’d say there were few that hated it. For those of you not there, Frank regaled the audience with stories of the many products he has developed or introduced in his 30+ year career. One of these was the “ball cap buddy”, a plastic form into which you insert a dirty baseball cap, which you can wash in your dishwasher. Frank introduced this product when we worked together at Brookstone in the early 1990s. Being bald, I wear a baseball cap all the time in the summer. Despite that, I thought it was a dumb product, especially since it retailed for only $7.99. Frank correctly knew that men would not buy the product because to us, a hat covered with dirt and grease has “patina”. It was my wife who bought it, because she was embarrassed at how unkempt some my hats looked.

Ball Cap Buddy

Frank did not tell you the most important part of that product story which was that he only ran with it in the Brookstone catalog for two seasons.   We sold a ton of them, but Frank insisted that we drop the product at the height of its sales. The reason? He had learned from the manufacturer that it was being picked up by Wal-Mart the following month. We dropped it the same month Wal-Mart started selling it at $4.99. Frank knew we’d look foolish with what by then was a commodity product, and which he knew would be selling at a price much lower than we could afford to offer. Sometimes what you don’t sell is as important as what you do sell.

The Irony of It:

Here is my one gripe with NEMOA.  You would think that by its very nature, NEMOA would be all about encouraging change and challenging the status quo. That’s why I find it particularly annoying that long after I had agreed to speak this year, they sent me a PowerPoint template for my slides – which all speakers were supposed to use.  From what I could see, almost all the speakers did use it – except me. I ignored it. When you are at a conference for 3 days, and every speaker is using the same PowerPoint template, the audience gets bored out of their mind very quickly.

I actually questioned why they require this, and was told it was part of NEMOA’s  branding.  In my opinion, branding is what you do to cows. Worrying about what template a speaker uses is not high on my list of issues that are hurting the catalog industry. The other comment that I was offered by a NEMOA Board member is that if they don’t specify a template, some of the presenters’ slides become too commercial. That may be – but you can’t have it both ways. Either you run the risk of being commercial, or you bore everyone to sleep.

The irony is that when I submitted both of my presentations, including the 10 minute Xpress talk which was supposed to be about being “provocative”, the only comment I received was that I had not used the approved template.  When the post conference survey results are tallied, let’s see how many attendees mark me down for being non-conformist on my slides.

A Tip of the Hat:

I have the greatest respect for Phil Wiland, and the organization which he has put together. I hope that I have the energy and vision that he has when I reach his age. And I admire anyone who has shared 50 years of marriage with their spouse.

Although I learned after NEMOA of Don Libey’s death over the weekend, I want to add a note here to say he was a great friend to many in this industry, and will be sorely missed. Don spoke at several NEMOA and VT/NH Marketing Group conferences over the years, and was always so gracious and sharing. His presence gave the VT/NH Marketing Group’s early conferences 20 years ago a great boost in attendance and a great deal of credibility.

I’m Often Wrong, but Never in Doubt:

Bob Webb, VP of Marketing at Potpourri Collection, paid me the nicest compliment I have had in a long time. He said “You know, I don’t always agree with you. And sometimes I think you are full of crap. But at least you are writing about issues of importance to mailers. Please keep it up.” I can’t think of a better compliment from a better source.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



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December Catalog Observations


We are two weeks past Black Friday/Cyber Monday, and I’m hearing that many of you have had a strong two weeks, with sales coming in better than expected. My good friend Mike Hayden at 4Cite Marketing confirmed that many of their clients as well had an exceptionally strong week of sales last week. However, it probably has not been enough to make up for the slow start to the season. It looks like many of you will end the season either just at or below plan, but not by much.

Moreover, many of you reported bottlenecks in getting orders out the door of the DC because demand was stronger in the past week than expected. Now, that’s OK because you don’t build a warehouse to meet the demand on one peak week, although you would staff for it. But each of the mailers that told me of these bottlenecks had been very promotional with emails over Thanksgiving and during the past two weeks. Again, are you measuring at what cost you are acquiring sales if you discount sales 30%, give free shipping and add a 3rd shift in the DC?


I had predicted that the Monday before Thanksgiving would be the peak day for catalogs I received at home this season – but I was off by one week. The Monday after Thanksgiving (December 1) was the peak day (26 unique catalogs, which is down from an all-time high of 52 catalogs back in 2009). Moreover, I received 11 unique catalogs on Tuesday December 9, with four of them mailed to prospect names. That said, we as an industry just keep reinforcing to the consumer that they can order later into the season.  You’re all counting on the other guy not to be promoting as late as you, so that UPS, FedEx, and the Postal Service can handle the last minute crush.

You already know about how the consumer was buried with promotional emails, because you received them yourself. I received over 300 promotional emails during the 5-day Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday period, with Brookstone taking the honors for sending SIX on Monday alone. I know when you are planning your email promotions, each of you anticipates that you’ll be sending out all your emails into a hailstorm of emails from every other retailer, and so your offer has to be better than the other guy’s. But, when you are evaluating the overall effectiveness of emails in general (not just the one campaign that went out at 2 PM on Thanksgiving) do you take into consideration that you are just one of thousands sending out the same message?


I’m Pissed

Dinner conversation in our home invariably touches on catalogs. On Cyber Monday, I commented about Lands’ End having a special that day of 40% off everything and free shipping with no minimum purchase. My wife responded with “I’m pissed at Lands’ End! I just got their latest catalog today, and everything I wanted to order at was out-of-stock! Why even bother to mail a catalog? All that is left in my size is one ugly color that I bet will be in the clearance section after the holidays.”

Well, that sent me to the garage looking for all the Lands’ End catalogs that we had recently received. Since September 1, Lands’ End has sent us 12 catalogs, with a total of 1,348 pages. That’s a huge marketing commitment, multiplied out over millions of US households. But, they failed to execute the most basic merchandise function of being in-stock (at least for my wife). All the omnichannel marketing in the world won’t help if you don’t have the goods.

No Prospecting Emails:

I get a ton of emails, but I can account for why I received everyone (either I’m a customer, or had signed up for emails from the company). I received only one truly “prospecting” email since the end of summer, from a chain of stores in Wisconsin that has a mail order tractor parts business. I don’t know how, but they found me and targeted me well. Why aren’t the consumer catalogs doing the same?

Myth of Uniqueness:

Many of you remember when I did my “What Were They Thinking Speeches” for the DMA, I would track the one item that appeared in the most catalogs each year. In 2003, it was everything angels. In 2005, it was “lighticicles”, the Christmas lights that hang off the front of your house to look like lighted icicles.

This year, it was multi colored socks, similar to those below from Plow Hearth and Sundance. They were not exactly all alike. I found them in 13 catalogs – which may not seem like much. But here’s the problem – I’ll bet that most of these companies thought they had really unique products, because they were the only one carrying a particular vendors’ socks. The consumer doesn’t see it that way – the consumer sees the same products in 13+ catalogs and concludes that nothing is unique. Sure there are slight differences. But the average consumer simply sees and mentally records a blur of funny colored socks. They conclude that everyone is just carrying the same socks and the only thing that sets them apart is price. Be careful when you jump on a merchandise fad.

Sundnace-2014-Socks P&H-Socks-2014


Times are Tough

The image below was a full page ad in my local newspaper’s Thanksgiving edition touting the virtues of newspaper advertising. It was sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America. I love the tag line at the bottom about “engage with newspaper advertising”.   Now, ask yourself this – why would a trade association use a full page ad,  on what is by far each newspaper’s highest page volume edition of the year, to self-promote the virtues of newspapers? Who were they trying to convince?  This is like the USPS and printers wanting to put full page ads in your catalog touting how effective catalogs are. When you have to convince your core audience (and I love to read the paper every night) how effective your medium is, you’re already destined for oblivion.


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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



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Reminder about Analytics for Marketers Seminar – February 20th

Registration so far has been fantastic for the all-day Analytics for Marketers Seminar that Datamann is sponsoring for the Vermont / New Hampshire Marketing Group on February 20, 2014 at the Marriott Courtyard/Grappone Conference Center in Concord, NH.

If you have not yet registered – here is a link to the seminar registration page  on the VT/NH Marketing Group’s website. But you must register soon!

Datamann has catalog clients coming from all over the country and the UK, as well as many local catalogs from New England. This will be an information packed event – along with being a chance to meet with other catalog marketers – which will be well worth the trip. (Concord is New Hampshire’s state capital, and is only 20 minutes north of the Manchester, NH airport, which is served by all major airlines).

Listed below is the Agenda:

Analytics for Marketers Seminar

Thursday February 20, 2014 – Marriott Courtyard, Concord, NH

8:30 AM to 9:00 AM – Registration and Networking

9:00 AM to 10:30 AM Key Analytics to Grow Your Business  – Bill LaPierre, Datamann

  • Determining which marketing efforts truly add incremental sales
  • How analytics help in new customer acquisition
  • Measuring the impact of Amazon on your business

10:30 AM to 10:45AM – Networking Break

10:45AM to 11:30 AM Developing a Pureplay to Compete Differently  – Addison Raap, Gardener’s Supply

  • How analytics shaped the decision to go “pureplay”
  • How GSC is measuring the incremental demand of the program
  • Factors you need to anticipate in going the “pureplay” route

11:30AM to 12:30 PM Merchandise Analysis and Evaluation – Bill LaPierre, Datamann

  • What are the key metrics to track on merchandise?
  • How analytics show which product categories to expand
  • How analytics reveal your greatest weakness in merchandise

12:30 PM to 1:30 PM – Lunch and Networking

1:30 PM to 3:00 PM Using Analytics to Improve Your Website and Ecommerce  – Larry Kavanagh, Kavanagh Commerce

  • Using shopping cart adoption analytics to improve your website conversion
  • Finding where shoppers get “stuck” and leave your site with purchasing
  • The easy way to use A/B split testing to improve website sales

 3:00 PM to 3:15 PM – Networking break

3:15 PM to 4 PM Analytical Trends in Catalog and Ecommerce Growth – Bill LaPierre, Datamann

  • Cutting pages without cutting sales
  • Sources of new customers that are growing
  • Analytical alternatives to RFM

 To register for the seminar, contact the Vermont/ New Hampshire Marketing Group.   Registration costs for this all day event are as follows:

  • $90 for VT/NH MG members
  • $125 for non-members
  • $100 for NEMOA members
  • Registrations are accepted until February 18, 2014

The fastest and easiest way to register: Go to the VT/NH MG website at http://vtnhmg.org/.

In addition, the Marriott Courtyard Concord is offering a special rate for attendees of $100, including the breakfast buffet – you simply need to ask for the conference rate. Call the Marriott Courtyard in Concord at 603-225-0303 to reserve a room.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 800-451-4263 x235



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Why Marketing Needs Operations

Many years ago, while working at Brookstone, we implemented a new catalog order processing system. We had had a home grown system, which did not allow for on-line entry of phone orders (this was before the internet.) I remember the endless meetings that went into this new implementation, and the endless checklists we had. Despite what seem like incredible preparation, the cut-over to the new system was a disaster. We could not process orders for 21 days.

That implementation had a humorous moment for me. I remember the manual (yes, it came with a book manual) stating that the 18 marketing reports produced by the system had been designed by a catalog marketing expert, and were the only reports that an advanced marketing professional would ever need to run a catalog. That should have been a tip-off. No system is totally comprehensive. Additionally, the reports and data that you find helpful in running your business, may mean nothing to me. (And none of those 18 reports meant anything to me).

The memory of that installation – and the lessons learned – came back to me last week when I attended the Operations Summit in Columbus, OH. It is the re-incarnation of the old NCOF conference. With the VT/NH Marketing Group and NEMOA becoming the last two marketing conferences for catalogs, the Operations Summit is the only conference dedicated to fulfillment issues. This year’s Operations Summit was the 2nd year of its new life since the old NCOF died. I tip my hat to the organizers of this conference – the session content was great, the sessions ran like clockwork (maybe that’s the advantage of having logistics people running things) and there were about 400 attendees.

I’m not a fulfillment guy. But I think every marketing person in catalogs or ecommerce should attend a fulfillment conference like this at least once every five years. Marketers all talk about breaking down the silos between catalog and web and mobile. But they ignore the fact that silos remain between marketing and the warehouse. (From a few of the conversations I had, it sounds like many catalog companies have an impenetrable wall between the two departments.)

You get an appreciation for the complexity of what your counterparts in the call center and the warehouse deal with, and in many respects, it is waaaay more complex than most marketing issues. I got an appreciation for how disciplined they are, because every little, tiny incremental improvement in operations means cutting one more step, one more cost, but without sacrificing customer satisfaction. I am convinced that package distribution and freight costs are just as much of a battleground as anything you deal with in marketing.

I came away with a ton of notes on new trends in operations that I will share with my clients. These are the seemingly minor, but fiendishly ingenious things other catalogs are doing to cut costs and be more efficient. It was a great conference for getting that kind of insight.

Here are three significant things I came away with from conference:

  • First, there is a huge fear factor among many attendees related to installing new systems. As one attendee told me, “It’s like going to the doctor and he says you need to lose weight, eat better and exercise more.  You might do it a little of that, but you typically don’t jump right into it. It’s only when you go to the doctor and he says ‘if you don’t get a heart transplant in the next month, it’s all over’. And even then, you still think, maybe I can by on my old FoxPro system a little longer; I don’t really need a new system.”  It’s been 20 years since I went through that install at Brookstone, and the complexity of the process has gotten worse, not better. Ernie Schell (the dean of consultants that deals with order management system installs), told me that he estimates that 1/3 of projects never go beyond getting the answers to the RFP.


  • Related to the first point is that no new system ever truly lives up to the sales promise. This is especially true of ERP systems, which claim to be truly comprehensive, yet never have the specialized functions a catalog needs like database marketing or inventory planning. I did not hear a lot of kind words for ERP systems.  However, one overriding comment I heard from many of the presenters was the lack of commitment that the client makes to install the system. Unless there is full commitment from the top, some of these installs die a slow death.


  • Third, the fulfillment people are more focused on competing with or against Amazon than many marketers. They see how Amazon has revolutionized fulfillment. But one of the best comments I heard was from operations guru Bill Kuipers, who reminded attendees that although Amazon is raising customer expectations, the customer does not always expect you to be like Amazon. You have to be good at getting orders out, but you don’t have to be as good or as fast as Amazon.

It was great to see all in one spot, some of the operations professionals like Curt Barry, Ernie Schell, Bill Kuipers, and Liz Kislik that I have had the pleasure to know throughout my career. Again, I hope that more marketing folks will attend this conference in the future.  You owe it to your company to broaden your view of what it takes to serve your customers.

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by Bill LaPierre

VP – Business Intelligence and Analytics

Datamann – 802-295-6600 x235


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